An Interview with Jessica Helen Lopez

By: Jill Dehnert on Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

The 2014 VOCES class headed by Jessica Helen Lopez and Damien Flores. Check out their Final Performance Showcase, this Friday, June 27 at 7 PM at the National Hispanic Cultural Center’s Bank of America Theater.

If you have never been to the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, GO. It is gorgeous; a lovely campus filled with dramatic, temple-esque architecture and a lot going on. This is where I met Jessica Helen Lopez, the newly named Albuquerque Poet Laureate. Lopez, along with fellow slam poet, Damien Flores, teaches a four-week summer intensive writing workshop for high school students called VOCES. Jessica seemed to be the embodiment of the literary culture in Albuquerque: welcoming and confident with a need to blend art with activism. If there was a lasting impression of Jessica Helen Lopez it is one of a deep desire to create a lasting, sustainable change through the creation and expression of art.

… 

BMR: Tell me a little bit about your trajectory as a writer.

Jessica Helen Lopez: I started writing in late 2005. I went back to school after a long hiatus during which I had my daughter and I was enrolled in a poetry class at CNM and it was required that I go to a community reading. It was my first ever. I had written like three poems before I went in that class and I went to the reading. It was an open mic and I read there. Then I was invited to come to a slam. That’s when I started attending regularly. At the time it was Slam Master Don McIver and he gave me a flyer for Poetry and Beer, the longest running slam here in Albuquerque. So I started slamming and I was lucky enough to tryout for the Albuquerque Slam Team, which had just won the national tournament in 2005. That’s the book A Bigger Boat . I made the 2006 slam team and I’ve been on five city slam teams, which means I get to travel a lot. In 2008 I was also on the Lobo Slam Team and we won Nationals. Since really getting into the scene I’ve competed in two Women of the World Slam Poetry (WOWSP) tournaments, through PSI: Poetry Slam, Inc So, obviously I’m still very active in the slam community. This is really a spoken word community (points to the VOCES classroom). And I also have two books published. The first, Always Messing with Them Boys was published by West End Press in 2011. The second book, cunt. bomb. was published this year with Swimming With Elephants Publications.

 

BMR: Was there a particular book or writer that inspired you to want to start writing?

JHL: Yeah. Way before I found slam I read Sandra Cisneros’s Loose Woman. I was really young and so I had never read any poetry like that, you know? I had always read people like Robert Frost out of big dusty textbooks, and I love those guys, but I could never really connect with them as far as being a female and a woman of color. And so, when I read Loose Woman I was just blown away by the gender expression found within the book and her cultural tales that I could identify with. I had always been an avid  reader and so I held onto that book forever. Then, when I was very pregnant with my daughter, Sandra Cisneros came to Popejoy and gave a reading and I had her sign that same book. But this was still 3 or 4 years before I started slamming. But, years later I was accepted into the Macondo Foundation, which was founded by Sandra Cisneros. So, I’m a Macundo Fellow and I’ve since hosted workshops for her and at first I was really nervous because it’s Sandra Cisneros, you know? But, yeah.  Her work had a profound impact on me pursuing writing eventually, when the time was right.

 

BMR: Can you talk a little bit about any differences, if any, between the slam community and written poetry?

JHL: That question always comes up, just because I think a lot of people assume that there is a difference, and I can see why they would assume that, but I necessarily don’t think there is a difference. For me, when I started writing poetry it was simultaneous that I found slam poetry because I was invited to a slam, but when I was in that poetry class at CNM I was reading from the page first and utilizing poetic elements for the page. I think they translate better to the stage if they are written with an attention to craft. As far as academia is concerned, now more than ever you have slam poets who have MFAs, a lot of publications under their belt, and are also journalists, educators, and founders of indie presses. So, I think those lines have blurred a whole lot. Slam has been around in this form for 25 years, founded by Marc Smith (So What?). And of course Slam is very accessible. You can find it in bars and coffee shops. But, in those 25 years there has been this wonderful intersection between stage poets and page poets. I think those that still want to draw a line between the two, they have an agenda. And whatever that agenda is, I could care less. It’s like saying I want to own this space or I want to own this space and really, you can’t do that. It’s impossible.

 

BMR: So what moves you from the page to performance?

JHL: When I’m writing, I’m reading out loud. I want to hear it out loud in front of an audience, whether it’s an open mic, or in the classroom in front of my students, or a slam. I think there are a lot of stereotypes with slam poetry that it has to be so theatrical or that it is just this yowling of rhetoric. But there are a lot of beautiful, subtle performers out there. Some of my favorites are Rachel McKibbons, Marty McConnel, and Joaquin Zihuatanejo. And, you know, Rachel McKibbons has an NEA and they all have several books. They all started in slam. So that stereotype that slam poets just yell at you in coffee shops or bars and they aren’t serious writers,that couldn’t be further from the truth. I just want to hear it out loud. It is part of the oral tradition of telling stories.

And I don’t always write from the first person point of view. Because I’m a slam poet, I’ve collaborated on pieces a lot. So, we take pertinent issues that we want to discuss or create awareness around, like border issues or femicide along the border, and personal pieces are really helpful in that way. So, you get to experiment with craft, so that you can convey your message in the most powerful and meaningful way.

 

BMR: So you see it as an art form of activism?

JHL: Definitely.

 

BMR: What issues are you exploring in your work right now?

JHL: Taking back sexuality for women so that it’s not owned by others and that it is a lot more complex than it appears in pop culture. That kind of expression for me is really important. You know, some people dismiss it as erotic or pornographic and it’s not. I just think it is really hard for some people to read about women’s sexuality when it is not defined by the status quo or distilled and sanitary. Even though there is nothing sanitary about the lyrics that we hear on the radio or the glossy ads we see in magazines. I also use poetry as a space to talk about rape culture, by saying: I own my sexuality. And so, gender and gender expression are things I write about often.

I also want to make sure that I am being very deliberate with not only what I am writing but also what I am doing in the community. So I always align my writing with being very active with helping to create and sustain change. You know, I’m going to be a part of a video for the state of women’s reproductive rights here in New Mexico for Lady Parts Justice. I am always trying to bring in various artists and activists to talk and work with the kids here at VOCES. So, you know yes, schedule me to read poetry for fifteen minutes. But I don’t want to just go home and be done with it. I want to get in there and roll up my sleeves and do something. For instance, the recent Respect ABQ Women movement, I wanted to get people registered to vote, I talked to people about the issues at hand, I voted. So, I want to do both of those things. Not just write about it, read, and go home. But also to participate. For me, they go hand in hand.

 

BMR: Has that always been a passion of yours?

JHL: The writing and the activism have always gone together for me, but I think it grew out of things that happened to me as a young child. Where I was silenced as a young child, I didn’t have to be in my poetry. That’s why I don’t censor myself in any way. I do think about ethics and the responsibility of writing for others because that does come up, especially if you are writing about persona. I really think about the responsibility that comes along with writing about a particular topic.

 

BMR: So, Albuquerque Poet Laureate. Tell me about that.

JHL: Well, it’s a very democratic process. You are nominated and then submit an application. And when the first nomination came in, and they tell you who nominates you, which is cool, but when the first nomination came in I thought, oh that’s nice. Then another came in and another. And the nominations were from all of these women who I respect so much. And so finally by the fourth nomination I decided to do it. It is a really lengthy application. You submit a manuscript and propose a project, put together budgets. And I was so busy during it, running down to Deming to work in a charter school there and putting the application together when I could, and I literally got it in an hour before the deadline. Then I found out that I got, which is such a huge honor. So now I speak under that auspice of Poet Laureate. My project has to do with youth being coupled with mentors and the end goal being a publication in a way that is sustainable so that if the next Poet Laureate wants to pick it up they can. The goal is to empower youth through written and spoken word.

 

BMR: Have you always been so community focused?

JHL: No, not at all. Before I went back to school I was going through a hard time in my life and I decided to move forward. When I started slamming I went through my own personal transformation. Really, when I got on the team in 2006, everything was so new to me and intimidating. You know, we had practice and then we were going to schools and presenting and leading workshops and it all was so strange for me. So, I learned from them and modeled my teammates and they were very supportive. And it was like a snowball effect. I began being active in classrooms and leading workshops and as my career moved forward I had more and more opportunities and I became the poet in residence at a charter high school here in Albuquerque for two years, which is where I learned a lot about how to interact with youth and how to empower them with poetry, hopefully. The focus on community and activism kind of just came with being a spoken word artist and a writer.

Jessica Helen Lopez has recently been named the City of Albuquerque Poet Laureate and is a Lead Mentor of the Voces 2014 Summer Writing Intensive Program for teens. She has also been a featured writer for 30 Poets in their 30’s by MUZZLE magazine. Lopez is a nationally recognized award-winning slam poet, and holds the title of 2012 and 2014 Women of the World (WOW) City of ABQ Champion. She is a member of the Macondo Foundation. Founded by Sandra Cisneros, it is an association of socially engaged writers united to advance creativity, foster generosity, and honor community. Her first collection of poetry, Always Messing With Them Boys (West End Press, 2011) made the Southwest Book of the Year reading list and was also awarded the Zia Book Award presented by NM Women Press. Her second collection of poetry, Cunt.Bomb. is published by Swimming With Elephants Publications (2014).  She is the founder of La Palabra – The Word is a Woman collective created for and by women and gender-identified women. Lopez is a Ted Talk speaker alumni and her talk is entitled, Spoken Word Poetry that Tells HERstory. You may find some of Lopez’s work at these sites –LaPalabra.abqnorthwest.com, thebakerypoetry.com, and asusjournal.org. Her work has been anthologized in A Bigger Boat: The Unlikely Success of the Albuquerque Slam Scene (UNM Press), Earth Ships: A New Mecca Poetry Collection (NM Book Award Finalist), Tandem Lit Slam (San Francisco), Adobe Walls, Malpais Review, SLAB Literary Magazine and the upcoming Courage Anthology: Daring Poems for Gutsy Girls (Write Bloody Press).

Photo Credit: Mariah Be Photopgraphy

Jill Dehnert is a third-year MFA candidate in fiction. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Blue Mesa Review.